The Last Free State Man, Part Two

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Samuel D. Houston at last took the advice of the Lawrence Convention and quit the legislature some time after it relocated to the Shawnee Mission. He had not gone straightaway, before they even met like Martin Conway did. His fair victory in the March elections meant the majority could not expel him without proving themselves hypocrites. While the season for such fashion extends in perpetuity, one imagines they felt they could handle a single antislavery man. Houston did pronounce himself willing to look the other way in the face of many illegalities in the name of getting on with necessary work. People need government and in its absence, they will create it. But the government they create on the fly often looks more like a collection of warring mobsters than most of us would prefer.

Thus Houston stuck it out. But eventually one must stand up for one’s principles or lose them in favor of high-sounding, but empty, rhetoric. In his letter of resignation, Houston told Andrew Reeder just which straws broke his camel’s back:

I would call your attention to the fact that at the March election, so far as I can learn, there was not a district, not even my own, which was not visited at some point by a band of invading Missouri voters. At some points, while the polls fell into the hands of numbers and power, many of the legal voters, grieved and disgusted, retired from the place without voting. This assumption of power, so flagrant, so pervasive of human rights, so destructive to all civil order, and so utterly repugnant to the grand idea which underlays the whole republican superstructure, was, in my opinion,l a sufficient reason why I should have returned my certificate of election to you without a moment’s hesitation. But I allowed myself to yield to the solicitations of friends, the pressing wants of the country, hoping that such a moderate course would be pursued by the legislative body as would be submitted to by the people.

The majority proved unable to use the words ‘moderate’ and ‘course’ together in an honest sentence:

the legislature had no sooner been organized at Pawnee, the place to which your message had convened it, than a systematic effort was made to remove from it a portion of its members, obviously for no other reason than that their views were inimical to slavery. These members had their certificates of election from you, and composed more than a fourth part of the Kansas legislature. These real representatives of the districts from which they came, the “duly elected” members of the body, were expelled, and their seats given to those who were not legally elected. The introduction of these illegal elements into the legislature was sufficient to vitiate its doing, and render null and void all its subsequent acts.

Yet Houston did not resign on July 4, when the expulsions took place. He filed a protest, but retained his seat. What finally pushed him over the edge?

this act, so manifestly illegal, was speedily followed by another, which removed the legislature from the constitutional place of holding its sessions, and created an additional temporary seat of government for the territory. This act also obviously contravenes the express provisions of the organic act which we have sworn to support.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Someone else cared about Pawnee after all. Given Houston wrote this in a letter to Reeder, one might suppose some degree of flattery. He had a better explanation: The relocation from Pawnee put the Legislative Assembly and Reeder at loggerheads, with Reeder vetoing every bill they passed and they in turn overriding each veto. That circumstance, in light of the legislature’s obvious illegitimacy,

led me to think of resigning my seat, and probably cause your excellency to interpose your official authority to arrest legislative action. This barrier, which your position as governor of the territory demanded, and which the people had the right to expect, places the legislature in a new and embarrassing position-one in which I had neither inclination nor instructions to act.

Retaining his seat in such a situation would have meant taking a side. While Houston clearly understood himself as a member of the free state party and sharing in their grievances, until the Assembly and the governor lined up against one another he could have remained a member without controversy. The people had elected him, after all. His presence might make the majority look better than they deserved, but did not necessarily reflect poorly on Houston himself. As the legislature increasingly made itself into a proslavery organ, his membership increasingly came at odds with his convictions. Deeming his continued presence “a condescension too inglorious for the spirit of an American freeman,” Houston resigned.

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